Sunday afternoon, still under the influence of the song Wesley Grubb sang in church, “As I Went Down to the River to Pray,” Louisa went for a walk by Quicquid Creek. A path ran along the bank, dotted with benches and educational signs on geology and wildlife. In the cool, misty air, the mountain ranges to east and west appeared as smudges on the horizon. Apart from a lone bicyclist, a thin man in a shapeless sweater, with his pants tucked into his socks, Louisa had the river to herself—and Jasper.
The little dog loved the sights and sounds of the running water and the things that lived in it. He loved to smell the muddy bank. It told him who had visited, what they left behind, and how recently. He trembled with excitement. But he no longer tried to chase the ducks that paddled away, quacking in annoyance. From its hiding place in the riverbank, a frog leaped into the water and startled him. He looked up at Louisa for reassurance. She patted him on the shoulder and they strolled on.
After a lifetime of Methodist training, Louisa was unsure about prayer. In church, she joined her hands and bowed her head with the rest. That was communal prayer. One assented to words spoken by someone else. One read them aloud from the hymnal or the printed bulletin. Sitting alone at home was another matter. She had no problem with solitude. It was sitting still that irked her. The act of walking was more satisfactory. Conscious thought receded as she moved through trees and under the sky. The experience was wordless. Yet when it was done, something had been said.
“What have you found, Jasper?” He had paused by a tuft of grass and refused to budge. Louisa tugged on the leash, but she did not want to yank the poor creature away. While they were locked in this contest of wills, a man approached on the path, a slim figure in black with a crest of white hair above his ruddy face.
“Mrs. Jones? It’s Theodore Percy, from St. Giles Episcopal.”
“Of course. How are you?”
“Am I breaking into a reverie?”
“Hardly that, more of a trance. When I walk the dog, my mind goes blank.”
“That happens to me as I walk, minus the dog. Shall I leave you to your trance?”
“No, let’s walk together. Jasper, meet Father Percy.”
Jasper sniffed at the rector’s black, polished shoes and looked up expectantly. The priest bent down to pet the fawn-colored back. He looked into the wrinkled face and bulging eyes.
“What kind of dog is it?”
“A pug. An aging one.”
The loop of Jasper’s tail wiggled.
“He knows we’re talking about him,” Louisa said
“We’re all getting older. That is the challenge.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you are young, you waste so much—time, strength, opportunity. You have them in abundance, and you imagine they will never run out. Then you become aware of limits, of mistakes made, wrong turns taken—that is middle age. At last, you realize that most of life has fled, like leaves in autumn. With what strength is left, how do you carry on?”
“Such a grim outlook—not what I expect to hear from a minister.”
“Next you will tell me that I look quite cheerful, the picture of health.”
“Since you bring it up.”
“I put one foot in front of the other, the same as anyone.”
They walked in silence for a minute.
“What was the subject of your meditation?”
“It’s hard to put into words. A sense of things being not as advertised. This morning, we heard about temptation and the deceptive way it comes to us. This past week, I have had a large dose of deception.”
“Yes. The newspaper editor provides a useful check. He has more experience in prying facts out of people.”
“He is your touchstone—a way to assess the truth.”
There was another companionable pause.
“Are you married, Father Percy?”
“A widower. My wife Anne died several years ago. Breast cancer that was discovered too late. We had two children, now grown and married. And you?”
“I don’t know what I am. My husband Harold died two years ago. My daughter married and moved away. I have a son still at home, a college graduate who is trying to get on his feet.”
“Technically, then, you are a widow.”
“Maybe so. Widow is a hateful word. I don’t weep, or knit scarves, or sweep sidewalks with a broom of twigs. I’m not a withered crone.”
“Far from it. I would say that you are a woman in her prime.”
“Are you flattering me?”
“It would not surprise me to learn that you are sought after, that some man in your life is paying attention.”
Louisa thought of Walter Nickles. “The editor makes remarks. It’s impossible to know if he is serious.”
“And unnecessary. You have no romantic interest in him.”
“How do you know?”
“Give me some credit. After so many years of counseling people from all walks of life, I can detect a spark. When there is one.”
“Very well, what about you? A single minister in good physical condition must attract the older women of his congregation.”
“The biddies of his flock, you might have said. Yet such is the perversity of the human heart that I will have none of them. Instead, I pine for one who is out of reach, who does not even attend St. Giles.”
“You can’t be referring to me.”
“No! You and I have only struck up an acquaintance. The lady in question resembles you. She is a widow with two children, a working woman, and fiercely independent.”
“Do I know her?”
“I didn’t mean to start a guessing game. Still, discretion is always in good taste. She lives here in Hapsburg. We met at a social function, and I fear that my clerical costume repelled her. She is said to be a freethinker, a member of no church.”
“In Hapsburg? Incredible!”
They both laughed.
“Enough of these mysteries, Mrs. Jones.”
“Call me Louisa.”
“Very well. At the risk of sounding like a loquacious clergyman who presumes a familiarity that . . . Anne called me Ted.”
“If Ted was good enough for your wife, it will do for me.” Jasper pulled Louisa sharply along the path.
“Strong for such a small beast,” Percy said.
“A week has passed since Ralph Willis died. How did you manage this morning at St. Giles?”
“We are fortunate to have a number of musicians on hand. Henry Low, a bass in the choir, played piano. The choir performed as always, but the mood was somber. They miss their director. Abigail Flibbert came up to me in tears after the service.”
“Have you started to look for a replacement?”
“I am advertising the position. It may take weeks or months to find someone who is both qualified and available. The world of church music is small.”
“And competitive, I hear.”
“That may be. I am aware of interest. But we are a small church in a small town. Our ability to pay and keep musical talent is limited.”
“Is Bobbie Sue Metzger among those interested?”
“So she said after the funeral. We were lucky to have Ralph. Other than Ms. Metzger, I don’t know that we will find another of his caliber.”
“We have reached the end of the nature trail,” Louisa said.
“But not, I hope, the end of our conversation.”
“Good luck with your lady friend, whoever she is.”
“Oh, that affair may be hopeless.”
“Come, now. Look on the bright side.”
“If you insist. Good luck with your article.”
“Thank you,” she said. “It is growing by leaps and bounds.”
Instead of trotting ahead and straining, Jasper lingered close to Louisa. The leash hung slack and got wrapped around his legs. Louisa bent to untangle him.
“Your little dog is flagging.”
“I may have to carry him home. What do you say, Jasper?”
He whined. She picked him up and tucked him under an arm.
“Until next time,” Father Percy said.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia (boucheronarch.com). His stories, essays and book reviews are in Atticus Review, Construction, Cossack Review, Digital Americana, Milo Review, Montreal Review, Mouse Tales Press, New England Review, New Orleans Review, Niche, Poydras Review, Virginia Business, and other magazines.